Bill O'Brien marches back into the locker room, having beaten his best coaching friend's team in one of those most determined man wins NFL games. O'Brien's just finished his postgame press conference and he's undoubtedly already thinking ahead to the Dallas Cowboys.
But that doesn't mean the Houston Texans first-year head coach is just racing ahead with blinders on.
Seeing Kareem Jackson at his locker, O'Brien stops for a moment with the cornerback who selflessly hustled to escort J.J. Watt on that 80-yard big man sprint of Pick-6 brilliance. Moving on, O'Brien stops himself again when he spots Shane Lechler. Lechler gets a hearty hand clasp and words of thanks too. O'Brien will take the time to acknowledge the punter's toughness in playing through injury. This is a coach who does not discriminate.
Everyone counts in O'Brien's world of situational football. Every man has a role to play. O'Brien is determined to bring out the best in everyone.
The Texans defensive players don't just want to follow Watt on that 80-yard interception return. They want to follow Watt period.
With Watt the only real question remaining heading into this season was if he could push his teammates to play better. If he could raise the level of everyone around him the way a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady do.
Consider Texans 23, Bills 17 a real salvo in the affirmative. There's Watt screaming at his fellow defensive linemen when they get out of position. There's Watt demanding and expecting more. About the only thing Watt doesn't bark at his teammates on this Sunday is "What is that, chamomile tea? You wanna take a nap?!"
Some of this is surely the natural evolution of a 25-year-old superstar. But it'd be a mistake not to acknowledge O'Brien and his staff's unmistakable influence on Watt as well. O'Brien and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel have empowered Watt. They made it clear they expect him to take charge out on the field.
After Watt goes Wreck-It Ralph on the Buffalo Bills, racking up nine quarterback hits and that Pick-6 for the ages, O'Brien doesn't gush over No. 99's freakish athleticism. Instead, the coach goes out of his way to mention Watt's leadership twice in his postgame press conference.
"He's everything you want in a great player," O'Brien says. "He's a leader."
Sometimes being a leader means getting in a teammate's face and demanding they do better. A few wise guys on Twitter bring up combustible Cowboys receiver Dez Byrant's own sideline screaming fits and wonder why the reaction's so different when J.J. Watt does it. They're missing an all-important difference though.
"J.J's all about winning," Danieal Manning, the veteran safety who's seen it all, says. "No matter what he's saying to a guy, they know he just wants to win."
Bryant's Cowboys teammates never seemed quite convinced that winning stood above all else as his No. 1 priority. Sometimes you felt like they wondered if it was even in the top five. J.J. Watt proved himself long before he started barking at anyone. Dez Bryant screamed first.
J.J. Watt built up the respect any good leader needs.
Even Arian Foster, the lifeline running back who is not easily wowed or given to fits of hyperbole, calls Watt "a special cat." Seeing greatness excites other NFL players too. No matter how world weary they sometimes try to come across.
About the only thing Watt doesn't bark at his teammates on this Sunday is "What is that, chamomile tea? You wanna take a nap?!"
The Texans defensive players don't just want to follow Watt on that 80-yard interception return the way Jackson does, nudging aside the last few obstacles in the fast big man's way, and laugh with him at his awkward high step attempt. They want to follow a talent like Watt period.
"He's probably the best defensive lineman I've ever played with," newly signed veteran nose tackle Ryan Pickett says in the locker room. "He's a great competitor."
The Texans want J.J. Watt to yell at them.
"The thing about J.J. is he wants you to be a success," third-year defensive lineman Jared Crick says after his most successful game in a Texans uniform, a one and a half sack first quarter burst. "He wants to help you become a better player."
Bill O'Brien, Kicker Whisperer?
O'Brien's built this foundation of trust in the locker room. By making almost everything a competition, O'Brien's fostered an atmosphere where being pushed is the expectation. Think it's coincidence that kicker Randy Bullock doesn't flinch when faced with the pressure of two 50-plus yard field goals in the fourth quarter — field goals that end up being the final difference in the game — after O'Brien pressures him all training camp and right on through the season?
Afterwards, Bullock notes how the Texans have been "pushing it back" lately in practice, challenging him with longer and longer kicks.
O'Brien uses strong language. But he doesn't berate Hopkins or talk down to him. He empowers him by treating him like a worthy partner.
The new coach is not just a kicker whisperer though. Second-year wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins has huge game-swinging touchdown catches in all three of Houston's wins. Hopkins is playing with new confidence, having been freed to play with the sometimes exasperating joy he showed at Clemson.
When Hopkins ventures a little too far over the line — drawing that 15-yard penalty for his soccer Dead Fish drop flat to the grass touchdown celebration for example — O'Brien doesn't just scream swear words in the young receiver's face though. Instead O'Brien calls Hopkins over and strongly, and pointedly, tells him how he hurt the team. In reasoned detail.
"He explained how that 15 yards really hurts us in situational football at the end of the half," Hopkins says. "How it gives them the ball at the 40 when we're trying to close out the half."
O'Brien uses strong language. But he doesn't berate Hopkins or talk down to him. He empowers him by treating him like a worthy partner and putting it in terms of Hopkins' responsibility to the collective group.
It's fascinating to watch and it's playing out as the Texans finish the first quarter of their season with the 3-1 record they desperately need with the Cowboys, Colts and Steelers looming in the next three weeks. O'Brien doing his thing means little without J.J. Watt doing his though — and the coach who is always quick to point out the NFL is a player's league would be the first to acknowledge this truth.
When O'Brien finishes those two impromptu locker stops, he slips into a side door. Watt is still sitting at his locker, still not completely out of his uniform. It's a brief moment of quiet for Watt on a day when he brought all the noise.
Being a leader is not easy. But it can sure bring some sweet joy.